Saturday, 3 April 2010

In response to Cory Doctorow (or "Why I won't not be buying an iPad")

Having just read Cory Doctorow's piece on why he's not going to buy an iPad, I'd like to offer a counterpoint. It's rare for me to disagree with Cory (I've got huge admiration for him and his writings), but it's worth challenging his views on this one because they're fairly one sided.

He asserts that the iPad locks its users into the whims and fancies of Apple and the content providers, while at the same time resisting the efforts of hackers wishing to take it apart to learn how it works and try to improve it. The implication is that this somehow represents a trend leading towards some kind of dystopian future where most content, hardware and software looks this way.

There are several areas I area with, strongly. Content providers must not be put in a position where they can limit our choices. And the hacker culture is one which should be cherished and nurtured - it's a critical part of how our industry evolves.

However, I would argue that, on the balance of things, the iPad will do more good than harm.

I can't help wondering whether, because Cory has invested so much time explaining why the old publishing business models have collapsed, he's lost sight of what was good about these models. So long as our rights aren't affected, why shouldn't the publishing industry look for (legal) ways to make money out of their content? It's their content, and they've got just as much right to try and monetize this as I have not to pay for it. There's also still a lot to say for investigative journalism still being funded - sometimes the big stories need money behind them. Not to mention all the careers at stake. So long as we can still access a huge breadth of alternative content elsewhere on the web, where's the harm?

I was perfectly happy to buy the Guardian app for the iPhone at £2.39, because it's one of the best ways to read news *on that device*. It in no way threatens the other ways the same content is shared elsewhere. As we collectively explore the new frontier of user interfaces on mobile devices, I'm tempted to thank the Guardian simply for advancing this cause. This benefits all content providers for all mobile devices, not just the Guardian on the iPhone, by demonstrating - extending - the art of the possible. Proprietary software has often served as a source of inspiration for open source developers looking to achieve similar aims.

And iPad users can still view content via the web browser (which promotes open standards, natch). The iPad user has full choice in this matter. No harm done.

As for hacker culture, this will continue to prosper because hackers still have other devices to take apart. This is an unstoppable force. Dedicated hackers will still find a way to hack the iPad, as evidenced by the community which has grown around hacking the iPhone [Update 5 April 2010: already jailbroken. And dismantled]. And, besides, just because something can't be hacked, it doesn't necessarily indicate a trend.

At the end of the day, the iPad is just a utility which, admittedly, sits atop the web. I would argue that the iPad extends the reach of the web further than it presently goes. It makes browsing the web more comfortable and convenient in certain scenarios (bed, train, sofa, others), and in doing so it will reach new people and increase usage for others (as a second or third device) - some of whom may become hackers as a result. Just as happened on the iPhone, we can look forward to innovative apps and websites that make the most of the new paradigms. And these will feed back into the various cycles of innovation happening elsewhere. In the long run, I would speculate that the web will benefit from the iPad, just as much - if not more - than the iPad benefits from the web.

As for the way in which comics used to be shared, and no longer can be, well that's a shame. But it isn't the iPad's fault - that's simple a side effect of digital content in general. Where you can still share URLs if you want to point at something. The web doesn't stop you buying a physical comic and sharing it, and in fact provides a wealth of social mechanisms and tools to augment real friendships. In fact the iPad is bringing comic reading to a new audience, who may become interested in the culture of sharing physical comics as a result. Cory should be thanking the iPad for this, not chastising it for the nature of web content in general!

I will be buying an iPad.

3 comments:

DE said...

Nice article. I won't be buying in iPad, but I can absolutely see the positive dynamics it drives - maybe I've been reading @ajkeen too much.

I'm looking forward to an Ubuntu tablet, but I don't necessarily want to take apart all my gadgets.

9600 said...

Nicely articulated, and agree that some iPad users may subsequently become hackers...

However, I don't agree with your assertion that such a level of control and lock-in is not a trend. It is. Earlier this week Sony released a PS3 update which removes the option to run a third party O/S, such as Linux, and that also removed existing partitions [1]. Damage is not limited to Linux geeks, and this will have serious implications for all the academic institutions which use PS3s as the building blocks of cheap supercomputer clusters. There are other examples, this is a real trend and Apple is fueling the fire.

Apple, Sony and friends are free to make locked-down devices. But these should be leased and not sold. They should be pulled up by trading standards when selling such devices, as no customer really owns them, and if they do it's a clear case of derogation from grant. You call it a utility, and so why do I have to buy this expensive thing which at the whim of the manufacturer can be rendered a brick?

Doctorow was bang on, and good on him for raising the profile of the iPad issues. Unless people do this, we run the risk of newer generations coming to think that paying a premium for devices with planned obsolescence is the norm. And that engineering is something for them and not us. And that your average mother is too thick to work out how to use a computer with freedom. The dumbing down of technology is not something to applaud, and I don't buy that rubbish that people are too busy to pick up a few computing skills. They can learn to drive a car, and can learn to drive a computer. This is one dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

Just like ready meals, credit cards, fast food and cosmetic surgery - you have to ask yourself: convenience at what cost?

[1] http://blog.us.playstation.com/2010/03/28/ps3-firmware-v3-21-update/

Phil Whitehouse said...

I suppose it depends on how you define "trend". What would become worrisome is when kids who might otherwise become hackers are somehow prevented from becoming exposed to the kind of technology that might inspire them to do so.

So perhaps the question is, at what point does this become a problem? I recognise and agree with Cory's (and your) general concern, but I think on the balance of arguments, and considering the broader landscape of UI innovation, investigative journalism and increased web usage as well, that it's a net positive. Time will tell.

As for the question of ownership, isn't the hardware owned and the software only used under licence? I agree that lack of control is a problem, particularly changing the software without Apple's involvement, but in legal terms I would expect the sale is legal (if not moral!).

I'm not aware of anyone calling their mother thick, or implying so, so I can't really comment on that. I can comment on my own mother (who isn't thick!), who has steadfastly avoided anything to do with computers. She'll probably give the iPad a wide berth as well, but it isn't hard to imagine a class of user for whom the iPad makes the difference between a friendly web and one which scares them off.

Anyway, it would be interesting to see some statistics in a few months time seeing what type of user has bought an iPad, what other devices they own, how they use it, etc. so we could start drawing some conclusions about the real impact based on real data.

I think that the issues Doctorow raised were important and valid - just one-sided. So to this extent I'm glad he wrote them, in the interests of raising awareness.